Knives & Skin (2019)

Is there such a thing as low-key camp or subtly played melodrama? Are those descriptors too oxymoronic to effectively describe anything? I’m picturing the “silent runners” window blinds subplot of Twin Peaks, Laura Dern’s monologue about the robins in Blue Velvet, the thin barrier between humor & heartbreak in The Elephant Man. Basically, anytime a David Lynch movie makes you laugh but you can’t pinpoint exactly why. The D.I.Y. teen mystery Knives & Skin operates entirely within this difficult-to-define subtle melodrama paradigm, somehow sustaining the quiet, off-putting humor of the silent runners gag for its entire runtime. It filters the Lynch Lite teen melodrama of Riverdale through a hallucinatory overdose of cough medicine, so that it sticks with you only as a half-remembered dream. You can recall laughing, but you’re not entirely sure why, or whether that was even its desired effect.

Much like Twin Peaks, the premise of Knives & Skin concerns the disappearance and possible murder of small-town teen Carolyn Harper, whose sudden absence shakes the foundations of her community. Unlike Twin Peaks, the film has very little interest in building mystery or menace around that disappearance. We all know exactly what happened to Carolyn Danvers & who was involved. The only mystique at play is in puzzling our way through other characters’ erratic expressions of grief in the weeks following the incident. If your favorite touches to Twin Peaks were the silent runners or the creamed corn or the fish in the percolator or Leland singing “Mairzy Doats,” you’re likely to be tickled by the quietly absurdist character quirks that run throughout Knives & Skin. Mothers dress in their daughters’ clothes and wander around wielding giant bread knives in a total daze; birthday clowns attentively perform cunnilingus full make-up; high school Beaver mascots trade mixtapes to cheerleaders in exchange for alcohol-soaked tampons. It’s a deceptively wild, over-the-top film, considering how much of it is communicated in hushed, sleepy tones.

Since it isn’t especially invested in its own central mystery and filters everything though a lethargic camp remove, this is a film that lives & dies by its aesthetic. There were some audible grumblings from the more macho end of our Overlook Film Festival audience about how it was the worst film they’ve ever seen at the fest, but I also heard other people say it was their favorite feature they saw all weekend. That harsh divide makes total sense. This is not crafted to satisfy your traditional Horror Bro. It feels like a murder mystery novel that was scribbled into a bejeweled Trapper Keeper with scented gel pens. Every single frame is bathed in bisexual crosslighting. The few possessions Carolyn Danvers leaves behind magically glow like fluorescent highlighters. Her classmates often breaks into acapella choir arrangements of 80s pop songs like “Our Lips are Sealed” and “Blue Monday.” It’s a gloomy, but aggressively femme teen aesthetic, as if Lost River were made by Ryan Gosling’s adoring superfans instead of the heartthrob himself.

I’m not exactly sure what Knives & Skin is trying to accomplish. In brief flashes it discusses parental grief, sex work, mental illness, enthusiastic consent, and how talented clowns are at giving head, but never with anything clear or nuanced to say. I still very much appreciated it as a beautiful, delirious slow-drift though a Teen Lynch aesthetic, though, especially once I realized how much it was antagonizing the more macho end of the room. I’m still not confident in saying there is such a thing as low-key camp or subtle melodrama, but if they do exist this movie is steeped in them – like so many alcohol-soaked tampons.

-Brandon Ledet

Ma (2019)

One of the more unexpected pop culture joys of 2019 has been the mainstream revival of the psychobiddy genre. What started as a dual career rejuvenator for Old Hollywood legends Bette Davis & Joan Crawford in the camp classic What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? stuck around for much of the 60s & 70s for other aged-out-of-leading-roles actresses like Shelly Winters, Debbie Reynolds, Tallulah Bankhead, and Olivia de Havilland in lesser drive-in marquee filler. Coined as the “psychobiddy” thriller or the “Grand Damme” horror or, most crudely, “hagsploitation,” the post-Baby Jane tradition of actresses Hollywood deemed too old to be fuckable reviving their careers in dirt-cheap genre work far below their skill level has given us some of the greatest slices of over-the-top schlock ever seen on the big screen. If nothing else, I’d easily rank the William Castle picture Strait-Jacket, which cast Joan Crawford as an axe-wielding maniac, among the greatest films ever made – full stop. I welcome any signs of a new psycobiddy wave with open arms, then, even if the genre label could be construed as a cruel insult to the actors cast as leads under that umbrella. 2019 hagsplotation has given us Isabelle Huppert dancing her way through over-the-top cartoon villainy in Greta, Robin Riker tormenting her pregnant granddaughter in the Lifetime movie Psycho Granny, and now Octavia Spencer partying with (and cruelly torturing) teens in the Blumhouse horror Ma. I sincerely hope there’s more to come.

The only thing preventing Ma from fully participating in psychobiddy tradition is the age & status of its star. At less than 50 years old and appearing in Oscar-worthy features as recently as the 2017 Best Picture-winner The Shape of Water, Octavia Spencer should likely be disqualified from being considered in a hagsploitation context. Every other aspect of Ma qualifies her performance and her character arc for the label, though. Like all psychobiddy villains, Ma is a sympathetic sadist who was only driven into violence & madness by a world that was cruel to her in the past. That sympathy does little to soften the severity of her crimes, though, as she veers from menacing threats & light stalking into full-on slasher villain & torture porn tropes as her psychoses worsen. Most importantly, the character is an excellent acting showcase for Octavia Spencer’s full range as a talent who’s too often relegated to one-note supporting roles. She’s given room to run wild here as a full-blown one-woman spectacle, often tearing through every emotion & tone imaginable with a machine gun efficiency: the deep hurt of a wounded animal, the slack-jawed thousand-yard stare of a Norman Bates descendent, the jubilant dancing of an invincible party girl, and the disarming sweetness of a family friend you’ve know your entire life. It’s at first baffling to learn that Tate Taylor, the doofus responsible for The Help, also directed this deliciously over the-top schlock, but it gradually becomes obvious that the goon simply loves to watch Octavia Spencer devour the scenery and it just took him a while to find the proper context for that indulgence – the psychobiddy.

A group of fatally bored teens waste away their youth in a small industrial town by drinking & vaping at the old rock quarry – the exact drab spot where their parents guzzled liquor decades in the past. After allowing the teens to talk her into purchasing their alcohol for them, an unassuming vet tech (Spencer) feigns concern that the kids might be drinking & driving and offers them an enticing alternative to their usual weekend spot: her basement. Gradually, all the teens in the area start partying in Ma’s basement as if it were a hot new nightclub, but Ma herself remains fixated on the few teens from the initial group, inserting herself into their lives outside the bounds of the party. Caught between enjoying the teenage popularity she was never afforded as a bullied outsider in her youth and avenging a mysterious trauma that’s haunted her since high school, Ma fluctuates between a fun party girl and a murderous biddy psychopath with the flip of a switch. She dances The Robot and karate-chops pyramids of beer cans like the party mom these kids ever had. She also stalks the teens she obsesses over the most on social media, eventually attempting to permanently collect them in her basement as tortured captives. The best moments of the film are when these two modes clash, as when she mutters the lyrics to Debbie Deb’s club jam “Look Out Weekend” to herself while maniacally scrapbooking. Spencer is mostly a wonder for being able to alternate between these tones with rapid-fire efficiency, often playing sane & friendly in one beat then zoning out in a lapse moment of murderous meditation the next.

The filmmaking craft in Ma is similarly all over the place, but to more of a frustrating effect. The film opens with the cheap inspo-pop & teen melodrama of a CW series, but also conjures occasional surprises like the drastic split-diopter shots of a classic De Palma thriller. In either instance, neither the visual stylings of Tate Taylor nor the inner lives of Ma’s teenage victims are the draw in this picture. This is purely Octavia Spencer’s show, and she adeptly delivers all the tragedy, fun, and cruelty you could possibly want from this kind of genre trash. She may be a little too young and a little too prestigious to be indulging in a psychobiddy thriller at this point in her career, but the result is so deliciously campy & genuinely upsetting that it would be foolish to complain about the method. Ma is an A+ actor’s showcase in a psychobiddy context, a clear standout in the genre’s (albeit minor) 2019 revival.

-Brandon Ledet

One Cut of the Dead (2019)

It’s near impossible to recommend One Cut of the Dead without spoiling what makes it special, so I’m going to have to tread lightly here. This is maybe the most deceptively complex horror comedy I’ve ever seen. It’s certainly the most patient; the movie takes a huge gamble in saving all its major comedic payoff for its concluding half hour – an alchemist third-act twist that retroactively transforms the movie you think you’ve been watching for the previous hour into pure gold. Whether or not all its potential audience will stick around for the full benefit of that payoff is a major risk, especially since encouraging viewers who are going in blind to push through the limitations of its initial conceit might already be tipping the film’s hand. All I can really report without prematurely revealing too much is how the film toyed with my own expectations. I found it quietly charming, then disorienting & awkward and then, finally, one of the funniest movies I’ve seen in a theater in a long, long while – horror or otherwise.

As the title suggests (perhaps awkwardly, in Japanese-to-English translation), the initial conceit of One Cut of the Dead is that it is an experiment in staging a zombie-invasion horror film in a single take. A microbudget movie crew filming a zombie cheapie in an abandoned WWII lab (that once experimented with bringing the dead back to life) are attacked by real-life zombies between takes. The unflinching, handheld camera offers a meta POV of the crew’s shock & subsequent fight for survival as the zombie mayhem they’re struggling to authentically stage for an unseen audience becomes “real.” Deciphering exactly what’s meant to be “real” within this paradigm and what’s merely a limitation of staging a single-take zombie picture on an amateur budget is increasingly difficult. Stage blood & actors’ spit splash against the lens. Performers wait a beat or three too long for their proper cues to deliver their next line. The POV cameraman is directly acknowledged by the actors, despite there already being a meta remove of a movie-within-the-movie. So much of One Cut of the Dead is on shaky logical ground because of the limitation of its filmmaking resources, but horror fans who are inclined to watch low-budget, high-concept zombie movies in the first place should be used to making those allowances. What’s brilliant about the film is how it transforms those awkward low-budget details into something brilliantly executed & purposeful. Revealing how it performs that miracle in a review would be a crime that I’m not willing to commit. You just have to afford it your attention & trust long enough to see it for yourself.

The biggest hurdle in convincing people to watch One Cut of the Dead long enough to catch onto what it’s accomplishing is that it’s a little difficult to convince people to watch any zombie movie in 2019, especially the kind that was made for less than $30,000 and most plays at genre film festivals like The Overlook. That’s the ultimate trick to the picture, though. This isn’t about zombies at all. Rather, it’s a heartfelt love letter to low-budget filmmaking and all the frustrations, limitations, and unlikely scrappy successes therein. Even before you’re allowed to fully catch on to what you’re watching, the movie’s already pitting a microbudget film crew against the horrors of the world outside their orbit. Actors strain to convey believable emotion in a preposterous scenario; sound technicians fight off the undead with boom mics; directors & cameramen defy all survival odds to piece together whatever scraps they can salvage from a film shoot that immediately goes to hell. This is a movie about the improbable joys & common frustrations of making movies, a sentiment that only becomes more apparent the more time & attention you afford it.

-Brandon Ledet

Stripped to Kill 2: Live Girls (1989)

Stripped to Kill 2: Live Girls is my favorite kind of unnecessary horror sequel. Since the first film in Katt Shea’s unashamed sleaze franchise is a self-contained murder mystery mostly comprised of 15(!!!) strip routines and a few gruesome murders, no one was exactly salivating for a follow-up – at least not for narrative reasons. The only reason the sequel was made in the first place (besides the surprise financial success of its predecessor) is that Roger Corman had a strip club set leftover from an unrelated production for a few days before it was going to be dismantled. Having wrapped filming her previous picture Dance of the Damned on a Saturday and rushed unprepared into filming this movie on the leftover set with no script the following Monday, Shea found herself working in the Corman machine at its most budget-efficient but most creatively restrained. She used the few days of strip club access to film as many dance routines as she could, then retroactively churned out a screenplay to tie them together in the following weeks. The result is total madness, a disjointed sense of reality that transforms the original serial-killer-of-strippers formula of Stripped to Kill into something much more surreal & directly from the id. It’s the same madhouse horror sequel approach as films like Slumber Party Massacre 2, Rob Zombie’s Halloween 2, and Poltergeist III: avoiding rote repetition of its predecessor by completely letting go of reality and indulging in an over-the-top free-for-all of nightmare logic. The fact that it was written in a rush after it already started filming only adds to its surrealist pleasures, like how the best SNL skits are the nonsensical ones written in a 3 a.m. state of delirium.

Live Girls opens with its best scene. A frightened stripper in 80s hairspray & lingerie dances in frightened flight as a room full of mysterious nightmare figures reach out to handle & harm her. Ominous winds roar on the soundtrack as if we had accidentally stumbled into David Lynch’s wet dreams. The dance routine itself is less akin to the straightforward LA strip club acts of the previous film than it is to the interpretive dance madness of The Red Shoes or any Kate Bush music video you can conjure (especially the one where Bush pays homage to The Red Shoes). As early as that opening, it’s clear that Live Girls has abandoned the gritty real-world crime drama of Stripped to Kill for a logically looser MTV aesthetic, caring little for how plausible its strip routines & murder spree play onscreen as long as they’re “cool.” The dance numbers are less frequent here (they were rushed to accommodate a soon-to-disappear set, after all), but they’re also more memorably bizarre. A tag-team lion tamer act, a fire-breathing routine with a flaming stripper pole, and an oddly juvenile ballerina number feel just as detached from reality as the frequent dream-sequence murders that are expressed in full-on interpretive dance. Although the MTV nightmare logic of the opening sequence does persist throughout, though, the film never quite matches the Kate Bush striptease madness of its opening, which concludes with a masked killer taking out their first stripper victim with a razor blade kiss. The howling winds of this opening nightmare do return in subsequent stripper-killing dreams, but none are quite as delirious or deranged as the first. Still, I was too immediately enamored for my mood to drop too significantly as the movie calmed down to stage a proper murder mystery.

Besides adding some heightened surrealism to its never-ending parade of strip routines, the dream logic conceit of Live Girls also improves on the Stripped to Kill formula by obscuring the misogyny of its stripper-killing violence. In this sequel, the kills are staged in the context of a stripper’s half-remembered dreams as she mentally unravels. Amidst the dream sequences of interpretive dance, a masked killer with a razor blade secured in their mouth slices stripper victims on the face & neck with a deadly kiss and our frazzled protagonist wakes with a mouth full of blood & no recollection of the hours since she blacked out. The ultimate reveal of the killer’s identity is unfortunately just as politically #problematic here as it was at the conclusion of the previous film. The difference is that the kills leading up to it aren’t nearly as brutally misogynistic. I respect the unembarrassed sleaze of Stripped to Kill in concept, but the way that film alternates between gawking at women’s bodies as sexual objects and then gawking at those same bodies being mangled and torn apart left me a little queasy at times. Here, both the sex and the violence are less reminiscent of real-world misogyny and play more like a horny teenager’s nightmare than a proper thriller. Disembodied hands reach through a series of glory holes on a shiny zebra-striped wall to grab a stripper as she’s tormented by the howling wind. Occultist strippers with face-obscuring masks & robes dance erratic circles around a victim before they’re kissed to death at the business end of a fog machine. Both Stripped to Kill films end on a morally offensive queerphobic twist, but only the first is truly morally grotesque long before it gets there. This follow up is loopy & goofy in all the places where its predecessor is grimy & gruesome, endearingly so. The neon lights & hairspray-fried mops of curls didn’t change between the two films, but the worlds they decorate feel like they belong to entirely separate realms – the real & the unreal, the grotesque & the delirious.

In its most surreal moments, Stripped to Kill 2: Live Girls is like a psychedelic, Kate Bush-inspired porno where the performers took too many hallucinogens and accidentally slipped into interpretative dance when the script said they should bone. At its worst it’s low-energy Skinemax sleaze, which can be charming in its own way. In either instance, it’s way more entertaining & bizarre than the first Stripped to Kill film, despite their shared penchant for poorly aged, queerphobic conclusions. Even if the final twist spoils the fun, you do have to admire the distinct delirium of the picture, which it shares with other rushed-through-production Corman classics like Blood Bath, Bucket of Blood, and Little Shop of Horrors. This addition to that haphazard canon of barely coherent projects that somehow lucked into cult status is a little more adherent to the bare flesh & neon lighting of MTV-era sleaze than its cohorts, but it fits right in among the best of ‘em all the same.

-Brandon Ledet

Punisher: War Zone (2008)

For the last decade solid, the superhero franchise has dominated box office receipts as a medium, to the point where hardly anything else has room to breathe. This pop culture takeover largely started with Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight series & the MCU kickstarter Iron Man in the late aughts, which combined to redefine the comic book adaptation as being not just kids’ stuff anymore. “Thanks” to The Dark Knight & Iron Man, nerd culture is popular culture now, where superhero comics media is expected to be taken seriously as Art for Adults, leaving the days of more over-the-top properties with Saturday Morning Cartoon energy like Sam Raimi’s Darkman or Roger Corman’s Fantastic 4 far behind in the cultural dustbin. I often miss the go-for-broke zaniness of those earlier works as the MCU and the *shudder* DCEU have become such well-oiled machines that you more or less know what to expect from their individual franchise entries a year before the pictures even reach the screen. It’s tempting to look back to the early stirrings of comic book adaptations’ sea change in the late aughts, then, and imagine what might have been if culture had shifted in a different direction. What kind of gloriously fucked up world would we be living in if Lexi Alexander’s Punisher: War Zone had won the culture war instead of The Dark Knight?

As an aesthetic object, Punisher: War Zone is clearly of the same cloth as the dark, “gritty” genre filmmaking that commands The Dark Knight Trilogy & its legion of grimly macho descendants. An emotionally troubled, gruff anti-hero violently tears down webs of organized crime while bathed in dark, sickly green lighting & harsh music video edits. Questions of whether vigilante justice has gone too far plague the titular “hero’s” tirade against powerful mobsters & crooked cops, echoing the anguished ethical philosophy at the core of the Dark Knight series. And yet, Punisher: War Zone could not be further in tone from Nolan’s self-serious philosophical sobriety. Even the more jocular, brightly lit counterbalance of the MCU is no match for the places Alexander takes the superhero medium here. To put it plainly, Punisher: War Zone is goofy as fuck. For all of its gruff macho exterior & onscreen depictions of vicious hyperviolence, it reaches levels of silly delirium unseen in a comic book adaptation of its stature since the cartoon energy of Dick Tracy in the 90s. This is a superhero narrative where cops have no interest in catching the murderous anti-hero, despite having rooms full of evidence on the bodies he’s left behind, because they respect his alpha male ability to get the job done while the judicial system leaves their own hands tied. That sounds like it would be poisoned with an insufferable level of superhero machismo, but somehow it comes across onscreen as so deliciously silly that it’s almost wholesome. Almost.

Considering its hard-R exaggeration of its comic book ultraviolence, Punisher: War Zone is decidedly not for children. No opportunities for bloodshed are wasted here. Bullets rip open skulls in glorious practical effects gore. Mobsters’ faces are dragged across seas of broken glass bottles, carved to shreds. Heads cave like melons when punched. If you find yourself asking, “Why is the stem on that wine glass so long?,” it’s because it’s soon to be plunged through a victim’s throat. However grotesque, this cartoonish fascination with the violent breakdown of the human body is decidedly juvenile. Punisher: War Zone wastes no time pretending that its violent antihero tirade represents some philosophical, allegorical dilemma about right & wrong in a world without a moral center. The closest it gets to meaningful dialogue is in the hilarity of awkward one-liners like, “Let me put you out of my misery,” and, when The Punisher oversteps the bounds of justice, “Who punishes you?” Why waste time pretending any of this action spectacle actually means something when you could just as easily set up a lengthy gag where parkour-obsessed goons are swiftly destroyed with a bazooka just before they get to show off their skills? Punisher: War Zone earns its R-rating in nearly every frame, but it does so while staying true to the childish sense of humor inherent to comic books media. It’s essentially the same juvenile slapstick violence that commands Shoot Em Up, except played straight which is to say it’s 1000x better than Shoot Em Up.

Practically speaking, it’s no use wondering what might have been if Punisher: War Zone was a smash hit instead of The Dark Knight. The film made only a third of the superhero box office numbers earned by notorious flop Howard the Duck two decades earlier – no adjustment for inflation. It’s a cult object at best. Even if it had been a hit, Hollywood studios have a tendency to learn the wrong lessons from box office successes and its formula could have inspired some truly hideous art in other directors’ hands – both visually & morally. Still, there’s a certain live action cartoon energy to Punisher: War Zone that was largely AWOL in superhero media in the past decade as comic book franchises sought a grittier, more tonally sober path. You can detect that sensibility’s gradual return in recent late-franchise entries like Thor: Ragnarok, Ant-Man and the Wasp, and Aquaman, but even those films feel overly restrained & concerned with respectability in a way that never crosses War Zone‘s delirious mind. This is an aggressively juvenile, brutally violent splatter fest that stays true to both ends of the comic book medium – the grimly macho & the unapologetically silly – in a tonal juggling act more films could benefit to emulate. If you’re going to be constantly bombarded with superhero media, there should be plenty of room for more outliers to be this wildly unpredictable & deliriously silly.

-Brandon Ledet

Greta (2019)

The camp classic What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? was a dual career revival for its two stars – Bette Davis & Joan Crawford – who had aged out of Old Hollywood’s cruelly small window of use for the in-their-prime actresses, despite their incomparable talents. While the surprise high-profile success of Baby Jane did lead to more roles for the two late-career titans, though, it also typecast them for dirt-cheap genre work far below their skill level, all because Hollywood deemed them too old to be fuckable. Davis & Crawford spent the rest of their careers as sadistic nannies, axe-wielding maniacs, and black magic hags – creepy old ladies who were literally, lethally demented. Baby Jane spawned an entire subgenre later coined as the “psychobiddy” thriller or the ”Grande Dame” horror or, most crudely, “hagsploitation.” Other notable actresses got roped into the genre as it continued to make money on the drive-in circuit: Shelly Winters in What’s the Matter with Helen? & Who Slew Auntie Roo?; Tallulah Bankhead in Die! Die! My Darling; Faye Dunaway as Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest; etc. If there’s anything the once-respected British director Neil Jordan accomplishes in his recent cheapie Greta, it’s in reviving the psychobiddy genre for the 2010s, allowing his titular star Isabelle Huppert to chew scenery the way Davis & Crawford had in similar relics of hagsploitation past. The cultural context around Huppert’s casting has changed drastically since the days of the post-Baby Jane psychobiddies; the actor has been allowed to be complex, compelling, and sexy in plenty of better projects in recent years in a way Davis & Crawford weren’t at her age. Still, it’s crystal clear that Huppert is working within the hagsploitation paradigm here. She’s not even emulating the classier end of the genre like Baby Jane or Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte either; Greta is more on the level of the Bette Davis pic The Nanny or Crawford’s Strait Jacket: the really trashy shit.

While I am overall positive on this picture as a campy delight, I should be clear upfront; Isabelle Huppert is Greta’s only saving grace. In the film’s earliest scenes, before Huppert’s old-biddy cruelty enters the frame, goings are tough. Between Chloë Grace Moretz’s non-presence as a naïve country bumkin in the big city (even though she’s originally from the small podunk town of Boston?) and Neil Jordan’s severely unfunny misestimation of how young women talk & think, the first half hour of place setting is a cringey bore. Even the early scenes of Moretz & Huppert forming and unlikely intergenerational friendship (and surrogate mother-daughter dynamic) after a chance meeting in the vast anonymity of NYC are alarmingly limp. It isn’t until Moretz discovers that the pretense of their initial meeting – a luxury purse Huppert “accidentally” left on a subway train, luring strangers to return it to her – was a deliberate scam that Greta finally comes alive. The remainder of the film is exponentially more fun as Huppert gradually escalates from clingy grifter to creepy stalker to kidnapper to full-blown murderess. The dialogue never improves as the stakes are heightened, but Huppert brings life to the material through the stubborn will over her over-the-top performance. Watching her flip tables, menacingly “teach” piano as a form of torture, get carted away on a stretcher like Hannibal Lecter, and shout disciplinary epithets like “This is a bed of lies!” to her Misery-like victim is a perverse, persistent pleasure that overpowers the dialogue’s more glaring shortcomings. If nothing else, there’s a whimsical little dance she does – like a child’s improvised, freeform ballet recital – in her violent showdown with veteran Neil Jordan collaborator Stephen Rea that is A+ delirious camp and alone worth the price of admission. I don’t know that I would readily describe Greta as a great movie so much as a great performance, but like with Tom Hardy in Venom, Nic Cage in Vampire’s Kiss, or any number of over-the-top psychobiddy performances in its own genre’s spotty past, the film is the performance. Thankfully, nothing else matters here, because Moretz & Jordan could have easily dragged the material down if Huppert weren’t such a spectacle.

The trick of appreciating Greta as a psycobiddy revival is in affording Huppert’s performance enough time to fully heat up. I wouldn’t blame anyone for bailing during the film’s fun-vacuum prologue, but those who leave the film early will miss out on the joys of watching one of our great living actors indulge in some over-the-top cartoon villainy once she’s afforded the space. There’s even comfort in the fact that, unlike with hagsploitation titles of the past, Huppert has not been locked out of landing more substantial work in better pictures because of her age, which is how the psycobiddy was born in the first place. This is more of a trashy detour for her than a professional dead end, which makes it all the more fun to watch her indulge in a bit of vicious camp at the expense of her wet noodle collaborators, as opposed to feeling embarrassed for her the way we were when the great Joan Crawford was typecast as an axe-wielding maniac despite her legendary cinematic pedigree.

-Brandon Ledet

The Net (1995)

There was a stunning late-2018 phenomena in the week between Christmas and New Year’s where everyone in my immediate social & professional circles who normally don’t care at all about movies suddenly cared a lot about one movie in particular: Bird Box. The absurd, instantaneous ubiquity of Bird Box‘s online premise caused on uproar of memes, then memes about those memes, then conspiracy theories about where the memes came from in the first place. Whether Bird Box‘s cultural moment was manufactured by the Netflix advertising machine or it was a genuine response to a widely available genre film with a flashy premise, its sudden online omnipresence was a great reminder to watch another Sandra Bullock vehicle that had been sitting unwatched on my shelf for months: the 1995 cyberthriller The Net. I don’t know that there ever was a time when The Net dominated online culture in proto-meme ridicule the way Bird Box hijacked everyone’s brain for 72 hours, but wild internet conspiracy theories about Bird Box‘s marketing had a distinct Net-ish flavor to it anyway. To put it in 1995 terms, Bird Box Week was a terrifying time when America got hacked by an elite group of cyberterrorists – Netflix’s marketing department.

The most convincing argument that Bird Box‘s instantaneous online success was a natural occurrence instead of an algorithm “hack” job is that Sandra Bullock is just that much of a draw. Curiously enough, that exact argument is what makes the basic premise of The Net so ludicrously unconvincing. Sometime in the 1990s audiences (and well-compensated PR teams) unanimously crowned Julia Roberts as America’s Sweetheart, only for that position to quickly trickle down to Sandra Bullock sometime around the release of Miss Congeniality (and, arguably, later to Reese Witherspoon). As one of America’s Official Sweethearts, Bullock is often cast as an everyday Plain Jane in roles she is far too beautiful & vibrantly charismatic to pull off. I’ve never seen a more preposterous version of that dissonance than in The Net, where Bullock plays a friendless loner slob computer hacker, vulnerable to attack because she’s alone in the world. Watching Bullock slovenly eat junk food & code in her “cyberchat” computer dungeon really pushes her Sweetheart Next Door onscreen persona into surreally unbelievable territory. That inability to lose herself in a role comes hand in hand with movie star celebrity, though – a suspension of disbelief audiences are willing to accommodate because we love seeing these megastars perform, Everyday Sweethearts or no.

Besides Bullock’s natural star power & effortless charm, The Net‘s main draw for modern audiences is its glimpse at 1990s era fears & misunderstandings of online culture. I feel like I already blather until I’m hoarse about how user-interface cyberthrillers like Unfriended, Cam, Nerve, and #horror are documenting online culture & tech textures in a way more “respectable” cinema wouldn’t dare; The Net is only further proof how invaluable that will be after just a few years’ time. The film’s main conflict involves an encrypted floppy disc that elite hackers are willing to murder Bullock’s online slob to obtain, exploring then-contemporary audiences’ fears of the vulnerability of digitally stored information. Characters anxiously explain the vulnerability of our “electronic shadow” in a world where “our entire lives are in the computer,” waiting to be hacked. The film’s tagline bellows, “Her driver’s license. Her bank account. Her credit card. Her identity. DELETED.” Most of The Net‘s basic thriller elements derive from Bullock’s helplessness in the face of this online identity persecution limiting her mobility & capital as she protects the MacGuffinous floppy disc. Just as important as those loud, overwhelming shouts of digitized culture fearmongering, though, are the documentation of more grounded, everyday online activities as Bullock frantically types away on her ancient PC.

Of course, all of this alarmist documentatarian focus on mid-90s internet culture often opens up the film to being outright silly, charmingly so. Primitive AOL-era emojis, in-dialogue explanations of terms like “IRL” (all-caps), and exchanges like “You’re hacker too?,” “Isn’t everybody?,” color The Net as a so-bad-it’s-good early Internet relic. A lot of that ridicule is overexaggerated, such as a much-mocked scene where Bullock orders food delivery from the fictitious Pizza.Net that more or less predicted the Domino’s online delivery app a decade in advance, as if this were prescient sci-fi instead of a ludicrously dated thriller. Where The Net truly gets good for me is in its lack of confidence that its chosen subject is sufficiently cinematic. Unsure audiences will bother reading online chatroom text to themselves, Bullock’s computer “helpfully” reads out the chatter in exaggerated robotic voice synthesizers. Discontented with merely displaying online data in matter-of-fact presentation, harsh music video edits & slashing sound cues are deployed to make computer readouts more “dynamic” (read: obnoxious). To add some explosive energy to the onscreen thrills, the film’s evil hacker syndicate graduate from hijacking online personal data to hijacking personal airplanes – essentially hacking victims to death in fiery crashes. It’s all deeply, incurably silly, a tone that only improves with time as its moment in tech becomes more obsolete.

Without its Evil Internet gimmick and the America’s Sweetheart charisma of Sandra Bullock, The Net would have a dime-a-dozen quality in 90s thriller terms. I assume the same could be said of Bird Box‘s respective gimmick, sight unseen (pun intended). There’s much worse a thriller could do to grab your attention than exploit a preposterous high-concept scenario & employ a surefire box office star, though. For instance, it could flood the internet with fake accounts & preloaded memes or hack your VOD platform to set its front-page autoplay on loop to inflate its own viewing numbers, boosting its profile. If The Net had taught me anything, it’s that nothing is unhackable and nothing online is to be trusted, not even Pizza.Net.

-Brandon Ledet

Escape Room (2019)

People like to joke about January being a toxic wasteland for cinematic releases, but for all practical purposes it might genuinely be my favorite cinematic month of the year. Not only is January a notorious dumping ground for Hollywood studios to unload cheap genre trash into wide release in a gloriously uninhibited free-for-all, it’s also the time of year when prestigious Oscar Hopefuls trickle down from NYC & LA to finally reach the American South. It’s a truly jarring overlap that allows for maniacally curated double features like Silence & Monster Trucks or Mom and Dad & Call Me By Your Name, the kind of high-brow/low-brow battleground I always crave at the cinema. Even as an enthusiastic defender of January genre trash, however, I was taken aback by the entertainment quality of this year’s earliest release of note the high-concept gimmick horror Escape Room. Escape Room is the ideal specimen of January trash, where all storytelling logic & meaningful character work are tossed out the window in favor of full, head-on commitment to an over-the-top, preposterous gimmick. My only regret is that I didn’t think to pair it with something prestigious, like Roma or If Beale Street Could Talk, even though that was totally doable thanks to the bonkers programming choices that always kick off the calendar year.

When stripped down to its essentials, Escape Room is the ideal version of Saw – with all of its nasty torture porn impulses & (most of) its nu metal soundtrack removed for optimal silliness. A group of money & adventure hungry strangers are lured to a high-end escape room with the promise of a $10,000 payout if they solve the puzzle therein. The exposition that introduces the escape room’s contestants (and, later, combatants) is smartly kept brief – reducing the film’s characters to broad archetypes who are instantly familiar, so no time is wasted. Once the boring business of telling a story with emotional stakes is swept away, they find themselves struggling for survival, both as a team & as opponents, in a series of preposterous death traps – escape rooms except for real. As they fight their way through creepy mannequins, oversized ovens, and monstrous doses of hallucinogens, a larger conspiracy about why they were chosen as participants and who, exactly, is pulling the levers behind the curtain emerges, but the effort amounts to even less than the half-assed motions towards character development & meaningful dialogue. This movie is entirely about in-the-moment cheap thrills, which it supplies in exponentially silly delirium as its escape room gimmicks escalate towards a near-global scale.

Besides keeping its character work to a bare minimum, Escape Room is smart in its acknowledgement of the dorkiness of its own premise. When a college student receives a Hellraiser puzzlebox invitation to the titular escape room, her roommate jokes “Have fun playing with your box over break.” Later, an uptight business prick endlessly razzes the escape room’s most enthusiastic participant for his nerdy obsession with escape rooms in general, essentially brushing him off as a virginal loser. There aren’t many other flashes of intelligence to be found in the picture, unless you’re easily impressed by casually tossed off references to Satre that have no actual significance to the tone or plot. The movie acknowledges that escape rooms are inherently dorky, rushes to pack one with broad caricatures anyway, and then puts its head down to power through the most absurd applications of its gimmick that it can conjure in just 100 minutes. You can squint your eyes looking for interesting choices in neon lighting, spooky synth music, or lavish production design, but you’d be fooling yourself for trying to pump this film up for being anything more than it is: cheap January genre trash with an all-in commitment to an attention-grabbing gimmick. It’s entirely satisfying for being just that and not pretending there’s a need for more.

-Brandon Ledet

2.0 (2018)

There’s a cinematic downtime in the post-Thanksgiving afterglow, when Major Oscar contenders have not yet arrived in smaller markets and Falls’ big-budget blockbusters have long outworn their welcome, leaving little to be excited about on local big screens. This entertainment void can sometimes lead to risky programming choices, like walking into an Indian sci-fi action epic with no preparation or context for what you’re watching. I saw the Tamil-language “Kollywood” production 2.0 in 3D as a total blind-purchase. I didn’t even know it was a sequel to the 2010 film Endhiran until I recognized its superhero character Chitti from “viral content’ memes of its predecessor’s more ludicrous scenes. The heroic android Chitti does not arrive until at least an hour into the film. The full nature & history of the supervillain he’s tasked to disarm is withheld for even longer. As such, I had absolutely no idea what direction 2.0’s sprawling 3-hour narrative was going to swerve at any point, making for one of the most satisfying cinematic experiences I’ve had all year. I don’t know how well that experience will translate to people who have already seen Endhiran or have a better familiarity with the peculiar structure & tones of a typical Kollywood sci-fi action comedy. Even reading this review before seeing 2.0 compromises your chance to replicate the experience. All I can report is that I was shocked & delighted throughout this go-for-broke live action cartoon.

I was already pleased with my blind purchase of a 2.0 ticket as soon as its opening credits, which are constructed like the kind of 3D virtual reality “rollercoaster” that people used to go gaga for at Disney World in the early aughts. That cheap-thrills amusement park ride through the “futuristic” opening credits is then disrupted by an incredibly bleak simulation of an entirely different VR experience: a first-person POV suicide. A gloomy old man hangs himself by a noose from a cellphone tower, birds swarming around his swinging body in a pitch-black tonal shift. His damned spirit then somehow uses the amplification of the cellphone tower to confiscate & spiritually possess all the world’s smartphones as revenge for the planet’s modern ills that drove him to suicide. 2.0 quickly reveals itself to be a gleefully over-the-top participant in my pet favorite genre territory: the technophobic cyberthriller about the Evils of the Internet. Our freshly-minted Luddite ghost is righteously angry about the ways cellphone towers have disrupted the lives & flight patterns of birds, so he hacks/haunts every phone he can gather to attack the very men who have greedily traded in bird lives for profit. Smartphones gather in slow-creeping blankets that cover entire rooms & roads, surrounding their bird-killing capitalist targets and eventually exploding them from the inside in moments of Cronenbergian body horror. Only one force is considered effective enough to subdue this supernatural birds’ rights activist: everyone’s favorite superhero android Chitti, whom I’ve honestly ever heard of despite his worldwide heroic acclaim.

Chitti’s universally lovable superheroics play like a silly joke – and it’s hilarious. The same slightly pudgy, middle aged actor who plays the scientist who created Chitti, Rajinikanth, also doubles as the superhero robot – distinguished as a piece of future-tech by his shiny silver jacket & knockoff Oakley sunglasses. He looks like someone’s milquetoast uncle snuck into one of those creepy Duracell commercials from the 90s, like the mild-mannered sitcom equivalent of Max Headroom. He travels by metal-gear heelies, leaving a comically unimpressive trail of sparks behind him as he zips around the city. He’s also supported by updated Chitti models that allow Rajinikanth­­ to stretch his acting chops in high-concept questions like “What if Chitti was a macho asshole?” or “What if Chitti were tiny & cute?” The deliriously over-the-top fun of Chitti’s mugging-at-the-camera superheroics is enough of a sugary blast to make you forget that 2.0 was once a grim, violent cyber-horror about vengefully possessed smartphones. The way the two halves of that divide clash in a giant go-for-broke superhero climax is far sillier, wilder, and more memorable than anything you’ll find in the MCU. The more I watch big-budget Asian cinema the more I understand that it’s common for a single movie to touch on as many genres it can instead of sticking to just one. 2.0 lives up to that ethos, melding technophobic sci-fi, Environmentalist political advocacy, ghost-possession horror, android-on-android romance, slapstick farce, superhero action spectacle, and philosophical debate about the power of positivity into one lumbering, silly-ass beast. It almost doesn’t matter if you aren’t already familiar with Chitti or the usual modes of Kollywood filmmaking; the movie will go out of its way to entertain you in any way it can, even if it means concluding on a Dirty Computer-esque sci-fi music video that blows through the entire budget of an indie feature in just a few minutes.

I look forward to reviewing Chitti’s previous adventures in Endrihan and exploring similarly over-the-top Kollywood action spectacles, but I’m also glad I was able to stumble into 2.0 without any contextual preparation. That’s a rare treat for a modern moviegoer. It’s so rare, in fact, that I found myself tickled by stray novelties that might have otherwise bothered me if they were something I had come to expect as cinematic norms: in-your-face 3D ad placements, Indian nu-metal, slow-motion reaction shots that hold on an extra’s face for at least a beat too long. I loved it all, both for the surprise of its novelty and for its audacity to go big & so silly. Chitti & company are 100% in on the joke, but 2.0 still commits to its ludicrous premise with full sincerity. I’d be lucky to experience that at the cinema every year.

-Brandon Ledet

Venom (2018)

The latest cinematic dispatch from the Spider-Verse, Venom, is paradoxically one of the blandest superhero movies of the year and one of the year’s best comedies. These two conflicting modes mix like water & oil, with at least the first half hour of the film treading water as a C-grade superhero origin story before it then mutates into an A+ slapstick body-horror comedy. If those two halves arrived in reverse order, it’d be understandable to walk away from Venom dejected & exhausted, feeling as if you’d finally been ground into dust by the oft-cited affliction of superhero fatigue, maintaining no interest in the future of the genre. As is, the resulting effect is much more enjoyably bizarre. The origin story doldrums of Venom’s first hour lull you into a false complacency. The film’s macho leather-and-guitar-riffs aesthetic feels like it’s been rotting in stasis on the big screen at least since the gritty genre cinema that arrived in the wake of The Dark Knight a decade ago. Then, once its sci-fi body horror hijinks finally get started, it transforms into something much goofier, much rarer, and (most surprisingly) much queerer than what we’ve come to expect from mainstream superhero blockbusters. It arrives cumbersome, but it leaves you in a great mood.

Tom Hardy stars in Venom as Eddie Brock, an unemployed loser who once worked for a VICE News-type media outlet before ruining his engagement to Michelle Williams by incurring the wrath of an Elon Musk-type (Riz Ahmed) with a boneheaded act of gotcha journalism. I could recount in mundane detail how Eddie’s feud with Not Elon Musk results in him gaining superpowers through a parasitic alien creature (named Venom) that effectively snatches his body & causes city-wide havoc, but it’s those exact origin story checkpoints that risk tanking the entire film’s entertainment value in familiar, leaden plot machinery. That’s not really what’s important about Venom; what matters here is how fully committed Tom Hardy is to the role once the parasite (or, in the movie’s parlance, “symbiote”) infects his body and the movie decides to become fun. Hardy gives a downright Nic Cagian performance in Venom, dialing the intensity to a constant 11 in a movie where everything else is set to a comfortable 7. Hardy sweats, pukes, gnaws on live crustaceans, and rants at top volume throughout Venom as if he were in a modern big-budget remake of an 80s Henenlotter body-horror comedy instead of a run-of-the-mill superhero picture. He singlehandedly elevates the movie through stubborn force of will; it’s a performance that demands awe and rewards it with increasingly grotesque, uncomfortable laughs.

The only aspect of Venom that matches the absurdly committed, manic-comic energy of Hardy’s physical performance in his own vocal work as the titular space alien symbiote, who he banters with telepathically throughout the movie (once it gets fun, anyway). Venom’s voice falls somewhere between Scooby-Doo, Audrey II, and Tim Curry’s performance as Hexxus (the toxic ooze from FernGully), so it’s a blessing upon us all that the film does not ask you to take the voice seriously. When Venom and his fellow space alien symbiotes ooze around the ground as sentient collections of grotesque, black goo, they’re appropriately horrific. As a voice in Eddie’s head, however, Venom is a laugh riot. He admits to Eddie, “I’m kind of a loser on my planet,” so it makes sense that all his menacing threats come across as embarrassingly dorky, such as when he promises to rip off a criminal’s limbs so that they roll around “like a turd in the wind.” He’s also got a Scooby-Doo appetite to match the voice, driving Eddie to eat straight-up trash & copious amounts of tater tots (always frozen or burnt, never the proper temperature). Their relationship as parasite & host even becomes oddly sweet, if not outright romantic, over the course of the picture – with Venom inventing an elaborate scheme to win Eddie back after a passionate separation by making out with him through Michelle Williams’s surrogate. Hardy does an excellent job of portraying both losers – Eddie & Venom – as separate, distinct goofballs who often share one absurd body so that neither is ever alone again. It’d almost be beautiful if it weren’t so goddamn silly.

Full disclosure: there was already a comedic body-horror this year where a Tom Hardy type (Logan Marshall-Green) transformed into a superhero via an implanted sci-fi parasite that telepathically struck up humorous banter with its host and helped them wage war on an Elon Musk archetype. Upgrade is a smarter, grittier, more satirically pointed version of Venom, a superior film on every count. Still, and this pains me to admit, Venom’s highs are much funnier. It’s a Herculean task on Tom Hardy’s part that this otherwise drab, by-the-numbers superhero pic is even watchable, but his dual performance as Venom & Eddie is so weirdly, consistently funny that the movie achieves legitimate comedic greatness once it gets its genre requirements out of the way. The back half of Venom is so thoroughly absurd that the grim, guitar-riffing machismo of the first half almost plays like parody in retrospect. Upgrade wastes no time getting into the comedic genre payoffs of its premise and is one of the best films of the year for it. Still, the surprise of the delayed buffoonery of Venom almost bests that film in genuine laughs, likely because there’s so much tension built up & relieved in the contrast between its warring halves. It’s a dumb, misshapen, big-budget beast that doesn’t deserve to be half as entertaining as Tom Hardy makes it. Yet, it would fit just as well on any midnight-movie docket as Upgrade would, even with frozen tater tots as a built-in, themed snack that could be thrown at the screen Rocky Horror style in drunken excess. It just requires a little patience before those bizarre, comedic payoffs arrive.

-Brandon Ledet